Impenetrable: The Hollow Rhetoric of Judith Butler
That title appears a contradiction. We think of the impenetrable as dense, so thick and compacted it cannot be pierced. But what is hollow is also impenetrable, differently, for there is nothing to pierce. The projectile, the probing argument, successful, smashes into density and destroys some part of it, alters the rest. In a hollow space, the molecules part like an undulation in air and reform themselves, after the traceless passage, around the same space. Nothing is changed.
Such is the rhetoric of Judith Butler, and are the ethics that are the product of that rhetoric, that are – in the language of that rhetoric – essentially rhetoricized. Butlers’s enmity toward Israel, and the argument she makes to justify that enmity, must be understood as another empty wind in the greater hollow space in which it blows. Butler writes in defense, in fact, not of her argument, but of herself – a telling distinction – that while many criticize her, with her impending Adorno Prize, for support of BDS, she is criticized from the left, on the contrary, for rejecting violence.
It is true: I do not endorse practices of violent resistance and neither do I endorse state violence, cannot, and never have. This view makes me perhaps more naïve than dangerous, but it is my view. [Emphasis in the original]
This is not merely a pathetic defense, but a contemptible one. A grown woman, an internationally honored scholar who thrusts her ideas challengingly into world political debate, defends herself on the basis of not just naiveté, contritely, but of self-conscious naiveté, willingly. Of innocence, naiveté’s younger sibling, Graham Greene once wrote, in an ironically, historically counter political context, in The Quiet American:
Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
As naiveté claimed by one so well-schooled, it is more the leper having thrown the bell away.
So distinguished a mind cannot, apparently, conceive herself naïve and dangerous, dangerous because naïve, even as she resists the obvious recognition that someone such as she has no right to be naïve. So distinguished a mind retreats to naiveté, makes manifestly no argument, and declares, like one entirely unschooled, simply: “it is my view.”
As if Butler might simply, credibly hold to such a declaration as a position irreducible and unchallengeable. But why be surprised? In her latest book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, she writes,
It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.
So Butler recognizes in her thought and in the political programs she advocates none of the compulsion of the possible, of reality. One may simply advocate ideas without the obligation to contemplate their effect on reality, for if they are, indeed, impossible, they are impossible for reasons: reality rejects them, and if reality rejects them, there are consequences to the rejection. Many people, living in the world beyond the hermeneutical and hermetic enclosure of rhetoricized reality recognize what those consequences might be. But as Richard Landes notes,
Butler and her post-modern, non-violent performers, however, cannot [commit the violence]. They can only empower the forces that seek, openly, to do so violently. They can only identify with aggressors. Would she intentionally stir up genocidal forces against her people? God Forbid! Would she do so in practice by signing petitions and writing denunciations of that allude to a comparison between Israel and the Nazis, and by hanging with people like the gang at Mondoweiss, who have no problem making the analogy? Yes. But as long as it’s not an intentional murder, her hands are clean.
Not surprisingly, so solipsistic a moral approach to the real world of people, expresses itself with striking self-absorption. In her essay of 2000 words, “I” appears 50 times, often followed by irrelevant (but apparently not to her) personal information. The consequences of her deeds, what Summers referred to as the effects of her performance on her own people, apparently carry no weight in her moral calculus. Her good intentions absolve all accidental sins, defend from all criticism.
To the point, an earlier book of Butler’s, of moral philosophy, is entitled Giving an Account of Oneself. Not an account of one’s ideas, of the occurrences in the world that one enables, but of oneself. Of course, the title emerges from Butler’s whole project of accounting for the nature of subjectivity, of the “I” that stands in relation to itself and in moral relation to others, but it would hardly become the critical theorist who is Butler, ever examining the self that is constructed of – and imposed upon one – by language to dismiss the implications of the language she uses.
The opening sentence of Giving an Account of Oneself is
I would like to begin by considering how it might be possible to pose the question of moral philosophy, a question that has to do with conduct and, hence, with doing….
There is thus an apparent recognition of the obvious purpose of ethical consideration, to enable real, right action and not merely produce ideologically whole but detached theorizing (the fact of impossibility does not suffice…). Pages later, much to the fundamental point of Butler’s general post-structural theorizing, she writes,
When a universal precept cannot, for social reasons, be appropriated or when – indeed, for social reasons – it must be refused, the universal precept itself becomes a site of contest, a theme and an object of democratic debate. That is to say, it loses its status as precondition of democratic debate; if it did operate there as a precondition, as a sine qua non of participation, it would impose its violence as a form of exclusionary violence.
That is to say, when a universal value is judged inappropriate to a local, i.e. not a universal, social context, and is thus rejected, it is no longer a universal value.
That is to say, with application to Israel-Palestine, that the liberal democratic values by which some might wish to judge the historical and contemporary records of the parties to the conflict are invalidated because others, Butler among them, have constructed an inverted ideology of power that renders the universal short-circuited. You are on 120 volts, as it were; they are on 240. Butler is limning Theodor Adorno in these lines, but the foundation for argument is hers.
Do not trouble yourself about the logical coherence of this assertion. As Butler’s prose goes, the excerpt is actually rather lucid, and already we see that when one is able to pierce the smokescreen of impenetrable jargon, one finds nothing there. Confronted by real world application the critical theorizing explodes in contradiction and self-negation – on the very basic level of upholding real justice and not merely advancing ideologized constructs of it.
Butler’s notoriously obscure and awful writing is only among the worst examples of a common malady – theory-talk that when it descends in hawk-like gyres to the ground of reality reveals its predatory nature: Jean Baudrillard, after 9/11, writing of the “twin-suicide” of the towers of which everyone had dreamed; Slavoj Zizek, welcoming the United States to the “Desert of the Real.” When Butler similarly descends to political defense and apologetics, and attempts actually clearly to communicate, a different kind of empty cant reveals the hollow vessel that delivers it.
Butler is at pains to do three things in her Mondoweiss defense: argue against charges of anti-Semitism, defend herself against accusations of praise for Hezbollah and Hamas, and reassert her social justice bona fides. She fails on all three counts.
I do not mean on the first count that Butler is manifestly anti-Semitic. She is not, and the question is never one of knowing another’s heart. However, to the degree that Butler makes any genuine argument at all in her defense, and it is a low degree, her attempt, as is now customary for her, is to coopt the history and nature of Judaism, and its meaning – limiting it, for instance, to Disaporic rather than national Judaism – so that she may embrace the Judaism she prefers, reject the other, and excuse herself, she thinks, of the anti-Semitic charge.
Such is Butler’s presiding strategy throughout her theorizing. She rhetorically disappears difference by analyzing it as a product of language and performance. The social problems engaged by political feminism are for Butler the product not of any actual human difference, but of the social constructs of the feminine and masculine. Queer is not a challenge to the oppressive power of the normative – as the original politicized embrace of the term declared; for Butler, it is a subversion of the very idea of normativity. Normal and queer are constructs too. Similarly, the problem with Israel is not that it is Jewish; the problem is that – by method of Judith Butler’s critique and theoretical disappearing act – it is, voila, not Jewish. So saith Judith Butler.
Then there is the fact that Butler chose to publish her defense at Mondoweiss, a blog that, in the psychodrama of its originating authorship, and in much of its commenting community, is deeply, personally and politically anti-Semitic. Does Butler think that because she steers clear of Stormfront she is all right, or is it that Stormfront is on the right, and Butler, from Mondoweiss to Hamas, cannot perceive anti-Semitism on what she conceives to be the left?
Writes Butler of the anti-Semitic charge,
The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.
We see here and throughout that when Butler permits herself to be readily understood, she is preposterous and dishonest. Refusal to consider and debate? An attack on reasonable exchange – on listening and speaking? Butler knows full well that there are almost countless numbers of people – intellectual and scholarly peers and others – who consider and debate hers and like ideas regularly, who listen and speak in response, and refute, and who would argue with and debate her and the ideas she promotes without hesitation. Her accusation of silencing dissent is a completely insupportable, cant response, because she has no better. The charge of anti-Semitism is both separate and the same, and it is made, when it is made, for preceding cause, not in order to preclude debate.
Butler’s defense against the accusation of praise for Hamas and Hezbollah is the usual weasely evasion, most reminiscent, currently, of her political opposite, Todd Akin’s “I used the wrong words in the wrong way” when referring to “legitimate rape.”
What she said then:
I think: Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. … So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an essential component of any resistance movement.
What she says now:
My remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah have been taken out of context …. I was asked by a member of an academic audience … whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left” and I replied with two points. My first point was merely descriptive: those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left. My second point was then critical: as with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept or endorse all groups on the global left.
Little of what Butler now claims is true. Her remarks were not “merely descriptive.” The two organizations she described not just as left, but as, actually, “progressive,” and Butler called it “important” to so understand them. (And why, anyway, would she cede public and valued political designation of two violent terrorist organizations to the organizations themselves?) She did not offer the choice of support for the groups – and why endorse even the choice? – but called understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive, left social movements to be a “critical, important engagement.”
A fascinating feature of the moral imagination is that even the brilliant manufacturer of abstruse ethical theory will, when cornered by natural and acculturated conscience, seek to escape the mirror she finds there. The extended “as-a-Jew” recitative that opens her defense, and that culminates with that term, is followed by the announced imperative, for Butler, “to speak out against injustice and to struggle against all forms of racism,” as “someone who wishes to affirm a Judaism that is not identified with state violence, and that is identified with a broad-based struggle for social justice.”
“All forms of racism,” “state violence,” broad-based “struggle for social justice.” All meaningful terms representing real ideals, except for when they are reduced to cant – to trite formulations that drop from the tongue, as they do among her fellows, like ritualized epithets. Butler ends her account of herself by attempting to substantiate the “all forms” of racism and the “broad base” of the struggle for social justice, but the effort is a fraud, a gross misapplication of terms. Demonstrably, she does no such thing – for where are her critiques of broad-based Arab anti-Semitism, her supportive attendance at conferences opposing misogyny and homophobia in the Muslim world?
State violence? Where in the world is there not state violence? Where is Judith Butler vocalizing in support of the self-determination of the Kurdish people against their violent suppression by Iran, Syria, and Turkey? On what basis does one choose one’s commitments, and how will one verbally scurry to mask that basis?
When Butler was ridiculed in 1998, chosen by the journal Philosophy and Literature to receive First Prize in its Bad Writing Competition, she wrote what was an earlier defense of herself in a New York Times Op-Ed. In it, she commits a telling confusion of terms. She argues that “ordinary language” is expressive of “common sense,” common sense itself too often (always?) representative of hegemonic and oppressive power structures. So, conveniently, a theory is defended by which impenetrable language is the marker of radical critique. Intelligible language is confused with ordinary language, the complex with the obscure, clarity of expression with common sense. By just such a rhetorical strategy is the reality of who one is, and what one really stands for, disguised.
But there is no hiding in plain sight. In plain sight, when Judith Butler comes into it, we see right through her.